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Berkeley record store clerk Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) begins to experience strange visions from an entity he calls VALIS that cause him to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles where he becomes a successful music company executive. With the help of best friend, science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick himself (Shea Whigam) and a mysterious woman named Silvia (Alanis Morissette), Nick finds himself drawn into a dangerous political-mystical conspiracy of cosmic proportions. The story is set in an alternate reality America circa 1985 under the authoritarian control of President Fremont, a Nixon-like clone (Scott Wilson). Written by
Radio Free LLC
When Inception was first released, I was living in New York. I was more isolated than I've ever been in my life, utterly alone in a city of several million people. I was also broke, and not eating well, and it was the day after my birthday, and much of that time is a sort of haze of mild delirium. So when I navigated out of the labyrinthine theater, from that intensely multi-level movie about the synthetic nature of perception and ultimate questioning of reality straight into the neon hyperreality of Times Square at midnight, it was an intensely psychedelic experience that drove home whatever point the movie may have had like a spike to the forehead. The parallels between Inception and the greater works of Philip K. Dick are both too obvious and too personal to be belabored here, but when I walked out of Radio Free Albemuth, having once again not consumed more than a few coffees today (this time due to logistics rather than economics) it was into Berkeley, right at sunset, in the twilight where Dick spent much of his life writing. The experience was less like a spike to the head and more of being wrapped in a chilled blanket of acceptance. "This is Phil's world, we just live in it." Or, possibly, "I told you so." Because he did, over and over, of course, tell us so. Whether he was talking about angels or aliens, communists or fascists or republicans, the themes resonate through his work. There may, or may not, be a vast conspiracy to keep the human race enslaved and prevent us from fulfilling our potential. There may, or may not, be an even more vast conspiracy to liberate us from the Black Iron Prison. The thing about Phil is that he never assumed he was right, and he never let his readers fall into that trap, either. In that way, this movie is very true to his ideals. The primary characters all constantly debate theories of what's going on, and certainty is always viewed with a certain skepticism. In fact, and pardon the vagueness for not wanting to spoil, the only moments of certainty are the ones which are associated with the most peril.
I confess that it's been years since I read Radio Free Albemuth, so I can't really speak to the fastidiousness to the book. But as a long time Dick fan I certainly felt that the movie was true to the spirit of his work. Dick's character (who, if you don't know, is not the one receiving the visions) is played completely straight, the way out science fiction writer never giving in to the wackier theories without analysis, and in many ways he's played with the sort of stoicism that messing around with mad notions of reality engenders in order to maintain sanity. Welp. My best friend is receiving messages from an alien intelligence. Welp. The massive government security apparatus has decided to set me up. Welp. There are multiple scenes of Dick waking up or otherwise entering into a new and weird narrative event, and Shea Whigham always faces them with what I could only describe as a sort of steely-eyed wonder which resonated completely with me as someone who's walked similar edges.
Another striking thing about the movie is its sense of temporal ambiguity. It states, outright, that it takes place in the 80s, but it never feels dated. There's a kind of anachronistic sameness to everything that prevents it from being nailed down. The television is an old 70s model, the beer is a brand which I sometimes drink, the fascists look like fascists always look. The only thing that gave the movie a period, for me, was the inclusion of a lot of music by Robyn Hitchcock, but he was always ahead of his time, and I Wanna Destroy You, the first recognizable song in the film, was released in 1980 and re-released in 2001. Other than that, it could be yesterday or tomorrow, and it overjoyed me to see Phil hammering away on his typewriter to a soundtrack to which I've hammered away on a laptop.
If the movie has a weakness, it's the fact that it gets a tad monologue sounding at times, as is the danger when dealing with material this cerebral. The producers did not fall into the trap of Lynch's Dune and have lengthy internal voice-overs, instead presenting strange ideas mostly in conversation. This sometimes feels a bit awkward, but it's awkward in much the same way that Dick's book have the sense that the science fiction is so close to your periphery it's become normal. Ultimately the oddity of the conversation only pulled me out of the film in the way that Dick's reveal of himself as the protagonist a short way into Valis pulled me out of the book. It has the effect, for me at least, of saying "you're experiencing an unreal event, a movie, or a book. But how do you know that the thing you've gotten pulled out to is any more real?" And so I found myself standing on a Berkeley sidewalk at sunset, geographically close to the house where Dick first wrote some of the material referenced in the movie, and terrifyingly close to the encroaching fascist state dressed in the rags of democracy, where spirituality is potentially a method of both rebellion and control. As a writer of fiction, it inspired me to remain true to the constant balance between openness and skepticism that allows one to walk the edges of reality without falling in (or out), and to produce the sort of warning and wonderment Phil always did, to resonate with and amplify him in saying "I told you so." But even if I tell it too, the timelessness of this movie reminds me that this is, after all, Phil's world.
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